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It's Only Loony If It Doesn't Work

It's Only Loony If It Doesn't Work

| 6/26/2013 9:08:30 AM

Balloon NetworkingI got a kick out of this: Just a few days ago Google started experimenting with a new aerial wireless network that will be able to provide Internet connections in areas that have no Ethernet infrastructure.  There are places in Africa and South America, for example, where the governments don’t have the money for a fiber optic buildout and private investors see no way to turn a profit at it.  So Google is investigating an alternative: beaming Internet down from above.

And here’s the fun part.  Google isn’t launching new satellites or building advanced aircraft.  They’re going to position their transmitters with a lifting technology that’s centuries old: balloons.  The balloons will carry the transmitters up into the stratosphere, and then they’ll just coast along on the prevailing winds.  Signals will be relayed from balloon to balloon until they can find a connection to Ethernet infrastructure and the wider Internet.  Google is planning a roving, global, mesh network.

There will be problems with the balloon network, of course.  My math says that it would take 250,000 of the things just to cover North America.  And they can only stay airborne for two or three months, so balloon manufacture and maintenance would automatically have to become a major industry. Radio bands are allocated differently from one country to the next – so how is Google ever going to get the whole world to reserve the same slice of RF Spectrum for aerial Internet?  And what about the overflights?  I sure wouldn’t want to invest in anything that was going to have to violate North Korean airspace.  And even if I did, I’m inclined to think that Lloyd’s of London would be reluctant to insure it.  Google is well aware of all of these considerations, so they’ve named their scheme Project Loon.

Maybe Google will eventually figure out how to get the whole world to go along with their plan.  But even if they don’t, this idea has great potential for providing service to disaster areas and ultra remote sites.   

Whatever happens, it’s a creative mix of old technology with the new.  Google’s balloons may use helium rather than hot air, but Archimedes could have explained the basic principles 2200 years ago.  By 1783 the French were already flying around in balloons – back when some guy named Napoleon was still finishing school and even the French had never heard of him.  Now we’re using balloons to create wireless mesh networks. 

It’s not the first time that old technologies and new technologies have worked together in data networking. There are still uncounted numbers of serial devices out there chugging away and doing their jobs, for example.  They may not have been designed to become nodes on Ethernet networks, but that’s exactly what’s  been happening anyway.  As soon as someone plugs in an Ethernet-to-Serial server, wired or wireless, there’s no reason that even a trusty old RS-232 device can’t be monitored and controlled from just about anywhere there’s Internet access.  (Or via balloon, if Google’s plans work out.) 

Last week I did a webinar for AutomationWorld on how to bulletproof serial communications.  I talked about things like RS-485 and the fact that it really does need a ground, and I covered some important stuff that they didn’t teach you about transmission line theory back when you were in college. Like balloon technology, serial isn’t the newest thing to come down the road.  But it’s still as useful as it ever was.  You can check out the webinar at http://www.automationworld.com/how-bulletproof-serial-communications-industrial-plants

And whether Google’s balloons are an old idea or not, you can’t deny that they’ll get some serious light of sight range when they’re bobbing around up there at 60,000 feet.  Those of us with terrestrial-based antennas can’t help but be a little jealous. Those of you who attended my “10 Commandments of Wireless Communications" webcast a few weeks back will recall how important line-of-sight is for wireless. Google is definitely on to something.  

They’re testing the concept with just 30 balloons for now.  But – just like network-enabling old serial devices – we won’t think it’s crazy if it works.  

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